1956 DeSoto Adventurer
1956 DeSoto Adventurer. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

It was a most unusual occurrence; the wallflower turns into the vivacious life of the party. Staid, solid DeSoto, never very flashy or adventurous, had always lived in Chrysler’s shadow. But suddenly in 1956 here it was offering one of the most powerful and flamboyant automobiles on the market: the DeSoto Adventurer.

DeSoto had arrived on the scene in 1928 when the young Chrysler Corporation (formed by Walter Chrysler out of Maxwell in 1925) developed it to fit between the Chrysler and its new low priced Plymouth. Then Chrysler unexpectedly acquired Dodge, and DeSoto suddenly seemed redundant. Chrysler made a place for it at the corporate table by dropping a Dodge model, but DeSoto never seemedto get over its forgotten child identity.

That’s why the Adventurer was such a surprise. It was named after earlier DeSoto concept cars, and came out a year after Chrysler’s new 1955 “Forward Look,” cars, the breakout from six years of stodgy styling.

Along with its advanced 1955 styling, Chrysler had launched a new image car, the stunning Chrysler C300, named for its 300 horsepower Hemi (hemispherical combustion chamber) engine. It was the first real muscle car, and corporate sisters Plymouth, Dodge and DeSoto, wanted one too, so 1956 brought the Dodge D-500, Plymouth Fury, and DeSoto Adventurer.

DeSotos came in two series, the Firedome and the more upscale Fireflite. The two-door hardtop Adventurer bowed in February 1956 based on the Fireflite. It was also related to the Fireflite “Pacesetter” convertible which DeSoto had built as the pace car for the 1956 Indianapolis 500, the only time it would do so.

The Adventurer’s appearance was set apart by the gold plating on its mesh grille, rear quarter panel badges, and turbine-style wheels. That’s why it was sometimes referred to as the Golden Adventurer.

DeSoto engineers enlarged the cylinder bore of its Hemi V-8 slightly, increasing the displacement from 5.4 to 5.6 litres (330 to 341 cu in.). Adding higher compression (up from 8.5 to 9.5:1), larger valves with stiffer springs, two four barrel carburetors and dual exhausts, upped horsepower from 230 to 320. It also received the corporate 12-volt ignition system for 1956.

To go with the extra performance, the springs and shock absorbers were stiffened, and power brakes were made standard.

DeSoto purchasers could order the corporation’s optional new “Highway Hi-Fi,” a small 16-2/3 rpm record player carried in a glove box-like cubby under the instrument panel. It was never very satisfactory and was discontinued the following year.

Selections for the two speed Powerflite automatic transmission were not made by a lever, but by mechanical push buttons at the left end of the instrument panel. Buyers liked the new car, and DeSoto sold 996 1956 models Adventurers.

For 1957 DeSoto received the huge, sweeping fins that were the corporation’s mark that year. DeSoto’s version carried triple stacked taillamps in the fins, a feature used until 1959. The Adventurer added a convertible for ’57.

Mechanical changes included Chrysler’s torsion bar front suspension. Also, the Adventurer Hemi’s cylinders were slightly enlarged, bringing displacement from 341 to 345 cu in. Power was up from 320 to 345, or one horsepower per cubic inch for a standard engine. At the same time Chevrolet was trumpeting its 283 horsepower, 283 inch optional engine, but DeSoto didn’t have Chevrolet type money to advertise its feat.

Despite its limited advertising budget, The Adventurer was becoming known for its outstanding performance. This, plus the addition of the convertible, helped DeSoto sell 1,950 ’57 Adventurers, almost twice the 1956 sales.

Several factors were against DeSoto in 1958. An economic recession reduced new car buying. Also, popular priced cars such as Ford, Chevrolet and Plymouth were moving up-market with larger cars, and old high-line cars such as Chrysler were making lower priced versions. Mid-market cars like DeSoto were squeezed from both ends. DeSoto’s total sales dropped from more than 130,000 ’57s to 49,000 ’58s, including only 423 Adventurers.

Some 1958 mechanical changes impacted DeSoto’s image. Chrysler Corporation’s heavy, complicated Hemi was expensive to manufacture, so the Adventurer’s Hemi was replaced with a lighter, less complex, and thus cheaper to build wedge-head design that produced the same 345 horsepower. DeSoto offered fuel injection in Adventurers for 1958, but it proved troublesome and was recalled and replaced by carburetors.

The ’59 Adventurer got standard swivel bucket seats and some exclusive trim and paint treatment. The Adventurer engine was offered across the DeSoto line, and sales rose to 687, but it was becoming apparent that Chrysler Corporation was losing interest in the DeSoto. Chrysler had eliminated the DeSoto plant and moved DeSoto assembly to a Chrysler facility.

The Adventurer, as good as it was, always seemed to be overshadowed by Chrysler’s famous “Letter Car” series. Nineteen-sixty was the last year for the Adventurer name, now used on almost all DeSotos. Although 1961 DeSoto models were introduced in October 1960, Chrysler Corp. discontinued the marque on November 18, 1960 after just 3,034 ’61 DeSotos had been built.

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